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New Research Reveals Nonprofit Volunteers More Valued Than Ever, But Scarce

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Terps Against Hunger food packaging event
A volunteer with the UMD student group Terps Against Hunger prepares a healthy meal for a local family facing food insecurity. Volunteers have never been more crucial to philanthropic activities, over 1,000 nonprofit leaders reported in a UMD-led survey.

Photo by Emma Howells

Do Good Institute Partners With New National Initiative on Sweeping Survey

Nonprofit organizations grappling with increased demand, limited resources and reduced staffing in the wake of a global pandemic rely more than ever on volunteer engagement, but those volunteers are now harder to engage, according to new research released Tuesday by the University of Maryland. 

The first-of-its-kind analysis about the state of U.S. volunteer engagement came out of a survey of more than 1,000 nonprofit CEOs and 100+ funders that was led by the School of Public Policy’s Do Good Institute and funded in part by a new national collaboration, the Initiative for Strategic Volunteer Engagement.

The survey found that in 2022, nearly two-thirds (64.4%) of nonprofits reported an increase in demand for their organizational services. Just over half (51.1%) expanded their delivery of services, and 48.5% boosted staff workloads to help meet demand. At the same time, 28.7% of nonprofits are operating with less funding and paid staff than they had before the pandemic.

“This gap in funding and staffing makes volunteers even more important for many mission-driven organizations,” said Nathan Dietz, senior researcher at the Do Good Institute and associate research scholar in the school. “Nonprofits will likely face staff burnout or service delivery issues if this continues. Many of these organizations offer critical services and support to some of the most vulnerable people in our society, so this is something we should all be concerned about.” 

Nonprofits are challenged by finding the right volunteer support as well as the capacity and infrastructure to sustain volunteer engagement. Nearly half (46.8%) of CEOs say that recruiting sufficient volunteers is a big problem for their organizations, particularly volunteers who are available during the traditional workday and who have the necessary skills. Many nonprofits reported they were retaining very few volunteers, and their volunteers were doing less, rather than more, of any specific organizational activity,such as delivery of services, fundraising, professional assistance or advocacy.

Despite these challenges, nonprofits seem more convinced of the benefits of volunteer engagement. For instance, the percentage of nonprofit CEOs who believe “to a great extent” volunteers allow the organization to provide more detailed attention to the people served ballooned from 37% in 2019 to 65.6% in 2022. And the percentage of nonprofit CEOs who believe “to a great extent” volunteers increase the organization’s return on resource investments increased from 43%to 68.4% over the same time.

However, there is a gap between funders and nonprofits on both the value and challenges surrounding strategic volunteerism. For example, 72.2% of nonprofit leaders felt that volunteers improve the quality of services or programs provided to a great extent, but only 25.2% of funders agreed; and while 65.6% of nonprofit leaders report volunteers provide more detailed attention to people served to a great extent, only 29.3% of funders agreed.

This lack of shared understanding between funders and nonprofits can be problematic since funder investment is key to helping nonprofits recruit and engage more volunteers.

“While nonprofits are putting more effort behind engaging volunteers today, they are experiencing the triple whammy of greater demand for their services, fewer volunteers and few funders with a track record of supporting volunteering,” said Robert Grimm, Do Good Institute director and the Levenson Family Chair in Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership. “These troubling trends must be reversed.”

The Initiative for Strategic Volunteer Engagement is a new effort of funders and nonprofits that believe in the power of volunteers to expand impact. It will provide practical and research-informed tools and resources to help nonprofits intentionally engage with their volunteer networks and inspire funders to further invest in strategic volunteer engagement.

“We believe in the power of volunteerism to advance mission-critical issues and causes, and that’s the main driving force for commissioning this research,” said Jeffrey Glebocki and Betsy McFarland, co-directors of the Initiative for Strategic Volunteer Engagement. “This research will be used to spark a national conversation for greater philanthropic investment in strategic volunteer engagement—and to equip more nonprofits to embrace strategic volunteer engagement for greater impact.”

For Media Inquiries:
Megan Campbell
Senior Director of Strategic Communications
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